How Accurate Were HBO’s TV-Movie Lesbians?

Here are Culturebox’s two big questions about the landmark lesbian cable event of the season, HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk 2, a sequel to the landmark pro-choice cable event of a few years ago, If These Walls Could Talk (for those who missed If These Walls Could Talk 2, which aired on Sunday night, it will air again on Wednesday, March 8, at 10 p.m. EST):

Question No. 1: Why did the promotional material (click here for an abbreviated version of it) feature all blond actresses wearing white garments and bathed in a heavenly light?

Question No. 2: How realistic is the somewhat surprising (to Culturebox, anyway) plot point in the second segment of the show, in which a bunch of giggly middle-class lesbian hippies trash a working-class butch lesbian?

Answer No. 1. On the basis of no concrete evidence, Culturebox absolves HBO of trying consciously in its advertising to reposition lesbians–those dark, leather-clad dominatrixes of popular fantasy–as Aryans. Why? Because Culturebox suspects that the implied preference for a Nordic genetic inheritance is merely a byproduct of HBO’s effort to communicate something else: that women loving women doesn’t involve anything as dirty as sex, you know, but just good Christian affection. HBO’s marketers probably resorted to blond hair and light-saturated white clothing in order to get across the idea of wholesomeness (presumably for the benefit of the Christian right)–a strategy which lacked the intent of white supremacism, though it certainly embraced the form. (It should be noted that the movie itself is neither sexually coy nor overly white. It features two scenes of explicit lesbian sex, as well as, in the second segment, a self-consciously multicultural group of radical lesbians–even though it is unlikely that in the year in which that segment is set, 1972, a supremely political black lesbian would have chosen to hang out with a bunch of middle-class white girls rather than with the black separatists on campus.)

Answer No. 2. Culturebox did do research for this one. She called Alice Echols, author of Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in American 1967-1975 (and more recently the biographer of Janis Joplin), who watched the movie on Sunday and was somewhat incensed about the representation of the lesbian feminists of her generation.

Segment No. 2, directed with a light touch by Martha Coolidge, tells the story of a household of college-age lesbian activists who get thrown out of their campus women’s group because it is felt that the taint of lesbianism might damage the larger feminist cause. That night, the girls check out a local dive for old-style lesbians, where to their amazement women dress just like uptight square men, suits and ties and all. A mannish townie (played by actress Chloë Sevigny) who has a mean way with a cigarette lighter picks up the most audacious of the girls. As the relationship between the two deepens, so do the misunderstandings, most of them due to the belief held by the younger lesbian’s friends that butches are the pathetic victims of false patriarchal consciousness. In the episode’s most shocking scene, the young women humiliate their friend’s girlfriend by forcing her take off her button-down shirt and don a hippie peasant blouse.

Echols, who herself came out as a lesbian in 1974, says there is some historical basis for the larger plot development, but not for the callous, ignorant behavior of the girls. “I cannot imagine that kind of treatment taking place,” she says. “I can’t imagine a group of highly politicized lesbian feminists as these women were supposed to be behaving in such a rude manner.”

Echols admits that there were tensions between what she calls “old gays” and “new gays”–“I think among younger lesbian feminists, older role-playing lesbians were seen as relics, dinosaurs of another era”–but says two things would have mitigated that prejudice: 1) Feminist activists of that era tended to idealize working-class women. There was, she says, “a very high consciousness of class, especially of working-class women. They were viewed as everything feminism wanted women to be: strong, capable, and self-sufficient.” 2) By 1972, many lesbian feminists were already abandoning the femme hippie style and starting to look “pretty damn mannish.” Says Echols:

We all wore jeans and boots and men’s tailored shirts and those white undershirts that they call wife-beaters these days. That was the style.My very first girlfriend was stone butch. She would light my cigarettes and open doors for me–and she was aware that that was uncool. But at the same time as we disparaged this kind of behavior, we admired her for having lived through what we thought of as the stone age. These butches brought out more women than probably feminism ever did. I don’t remember anybody being taken to task for going out with someone like the Chloë Sevigny figure. It was seen, unfortunately, as an opportunity to do cultural work, to raise consciousness.